Early in my senior year in college, I was approached by the school newspaper’s academic adviser. He told me that every year there was a prestigious dinner party that included all the high-ranking college officials, the Board of Trustees of the school, and the heads of the “important” student groups (newspaper, yearbook, radio station, and student government). Since I was the editor of the college newspaper, I was expected to attend. He made it clear to me that this was an excellent opportunity to schmooze with all the important players in the Administration and that my attendance at this function was, while not mandatory, highly encouraged. This dinner was important. These were not people you wanted to blow off.
I blew it off, sending my temporarily on-again girlfriend in my place (she was in student government in some long-forgotten capacity). The same night, Johnny Winter was playing a show in a small club called Manhattans, only twenty minutes from my house, and I wasn’t about to miss that.
I’d seen Winter in concert once before, playing on a bill with Mountain’s Leslie West and Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee. It was a co-headlining tour with Lee and Winter switching off as the main attraction. Over thirty years later I can still picture Winter on the stage of the old Palladium in New York City. Rumors (even in 1983) were that Winter was nearly completely blind and that he barely moved on stage. What I saw was the opposite. While his vision may have been largely gone as a result of his albinism, Winter twirled around the stage like a whirling dervish, gracefully wrapping himself up in his guitar cord and then unwrapping himself by twirling in the opposite direction. He never missed a note, and he played a lot of notes. It was a stunning performance.
I saw him one more time, opening for The Gregg Allman Band at Pier 84 in New York, one of the greatest concert venues ever. Once again he put on a show of dazzling virtuosity on the guitar.
Johnny Winter had a rocky career. He started brilliantly and achieved massive success, but became addicted to heroin and lost his way in the early 1970s. Winter was the first high-profile rocker to announce his addiction and then disappear to kick the habit. He came back two years later with the excellent Still Alive and Well album after first testing the waters by appearing on stage with his brother Edgar. (This appearance was captured on Edgar Winter’s album Roadwork, introduced by the famous line “A lot of people ask me, ‘Hey, where’s your brother?'” to a thunderous ovation.) Winter’s albums for the next ten years were largely uninspired. He had a lot of pressure on him from his management and record label to focus less on blues and more on rock, a fit that was never quite right. His best rock albums (and they are great) were his earliest: 1969’s extraordinary Second Winter, 1970’s Johnny Winter And (his best pure rock album), and 1973’s Still Alive and Well. But blues was where Johnny Winter felt most comfortable. He single-handedly revived the career of Muddy Waters in the mid-70s when he produced Muddy’s excellent comeback album Hard Again, and managed to sneak out one solid blues album (Nothin’ But The Blues) in the midst of his career as a rocker.
It wasn’t until the mid-80s when his fame was largely forgotten, that Winter found a home on Chicago’s blues record label, Alligator. No longer beholden to men in suits who wanted him to play more commercial rock, Winter embraced the blues again. He formed a tight band and recorded three incendiary albums, Guitar Slinger, Serious Business, and, especially, Third Degree. Since then his output has been spotty. Poor health, failing eyesight, management problems, and a methadone addiction (the byproduct of his attempt to quit heroin in the early 1970s; he traded one addiction for another) all contributed to a series of albums that were lackluster at best.
Winter never again achieved the fame he had in the late 1960s and early 1970s when young music fans were besotted with guitar virtuosos. How famous was he? Two of the biggest and most famous live albums of all time, The Allman Brothers At Fillmore East and Frampton Comes Alive were recorded when the bands in question were opening for Johnny Winter. He didn’t need to scale those heights again. He spent the end of his career as he spent his formative years, playing blues for a smaller, but still devoted, fan base. Despite his poor health, he never lost a step on the guitar. His lightning fast runs and nearly out of control slide playing were every bit as potent when he was playing Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival as they were when he was playing the Fillmore East or Woodstock.
Rock music has lost a great player today, but the blues has lost a legend. RIP.